the novel’s scrupulous reserve leaves you feeling there’s a blank where the story should be. The first named locations in the opening scene, set in Aden’s home town cul-de-sac, are the airport and the cemetery; we get that staying put doesn’t seem an option – not least for a self-described “freak” taunted in the street for wearing shalwar kameez – but it’s hard not to wonder what on earth is going on once she eventually does pitch up at a paramilitary training camp... But is Aden’s opacity a mark of her psychological complexity, or just a symptom of the unguessable void that attracted Wray to Lindh in the first place? It isn’t the only question this fascinating and frustrating novel leaves hanging.
Godsend’s set-up is risky for a white, male novelist; the sense that something bad is about to happen operates on both the level of plot and of the book’s politics. Theoretically, the question of whether a writer from any background can – legally, ethically – write a character from a different background is silly. But the trouble, as Wray has acknowledged in interviews, is that very few people do it well. (Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, another recent 9/11 novel, asks both through its form and its content ‘the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blindspots in our own.’) On first read Godsend is almost physically stressful, the escalation of any little mistake made by Sawyer is easy to envision. But on a second, the knowledge of what happens renders wasted the delicate suspense that buoys much of the novel.
In Godsend, American novelist John Wray conjures up an extraordinary character: Aden Sawyer, Californian girl, pre-9/11 Muslim convert, cross-dressing imposter, Pakistani madrassa student and, finally, Taliban militant in post-9/11 Afghanistan. It’s a jihadist picaresque... With a novelist’s perception, Wray sees through jihadism’s political garb... Wray’s own prose is perfectly pitched. He assumes an idiom seemingly native to Afghanistan. Flying partridges are likened to “castaway burqas”. It grounds Godsend in its surroundings as surely as describing caves of pink granite.
The book’s keynote is oddly serene. There are gentle descriptions of the Afghan countryside: ‘it was hot now in the afternoons and blackberries and Persian roses thrived in the shade on the north-facing banks.’ Mullahs and warlords alike speak with courtly precision: ‘perhaps it is well that you interrupted us, Suleyman the Graceful.’ All of this is punctuated by the steady rhythm of daily prayers. The tranquillity provides a shocking counterpoint to the violence for which some of these characters are responsible, even as it seems to go some way towards explaining it.
Wray writes with an elegant economy, and is good on both description (not overdone) and dialogue. He makes what might seem distant to American and European readers feel immediate. His treatment of Islam is sympathetic; he shows that side of the faith which makes the description of it as “a religion of peace” convincing... Wray’s understanding of the beauties and cruelties of religious faith is deeply impressive. This is a very fine novel indeed. A lesser writer would have made it at least twice as long. Anybody who seeks to understand the world as it is today will find enlightenment here.
If Godsend falls just short of illuminating the extremist mind, Wray nevertheless deserves praise for the attempt. At a time when so many novelists are turning towards inner landscapes, Wray has undertaken a journey to the edge of the unimaginable. He may not have returned with the genuine article, but contemporary fiction is enlivened by near misses such as this.
The “war on terror” theme can quickly reduce even great writers to cliche and worse. (John Updike’s lamentable Terrorist may be the worst of the genre.) However, John Wray’s fifth novel, Godsend, is entirely convincing, in part because he has done his research... The book’s precise descriptions of the external world – squalid cities studded with ornate mosques, soaring mountains and icy rivers, mud-and-wattle villages inhabited by ambiguously sullen villagers – are as rich as its rendering of interiority is profound. Rawly unsentimental but illuminated throughout by a subtle compassion, Godsend is a novel of enormous emotional intelligence which makes for compelling and consistently unpredictable reading.
“Godsend,” which begins like a recognizable combination of bildungsroman and adventure tale, becomes much stranger and more original after it arrives in Pakistan, discovering within itself a profound understanding of the demands of religious practice—of religious submission, especially—which has eluded almost every serious contemporary American novelist since 9/11. It is not only Wray’s heroine but also his novel that comes of age, steadily deepening and astounding as it develops... “Godsend” impresses because Wray is so fearlessly committed to his fictional world, and to his own depiction of it. If anything, the writing gets stronger once Aden leaves the madrassa for the training camps in Afghanistan.
“Godsend” contains some very adept writing about theology and religious feeling. The ways that sexual and religious elation can combine, and combust, are not discounted in this novel. Aden becomes close to one man in particular. He may have known her secret all along.
This is probably the place to say that “Godsend” mostly cuts against the grain of my own taste. I lack the spiritual gene, and I can grow resentful of novels that lead me into a cave of superstition and hushed ignorance and then seal the entrance... Wray manages to nearly always hold a skeptical reader rapt, however. This is a significant literary performance. This novel’s contents are under enormous pressure. The author has clearly mastered a great deal of learning about Islam and warfare and the nature of life in Afghanistan, and he carefully husbands these resources. There are no blood clots of showily displayed research to block this novel’s arteries.